Chapter V. How I became a guitar player, part 2.
Chapter V. How I became a guitar player, part 2.

So, maybe this is about what lights the kindling. 

The organic, visceral response to Freddie King’s Hideaway - I mean, I literally broke out in a sweat when I first heard it - led to seeing shows circa 1969/1970 at the Ash Grove on Melrose Ave. in Los Angeles, where I saw Freddie a few times backed by a huge band and a bass player who always announced breaks with “we’re gonna take a pause for the cause” or “we’ll be right black.” I still remember shaking Freddie’s big hand after a show - it sent a chill down my little white boy spine. My friends and I saw so many great, intimate shows at the Ash Grove, especially Johnny Otis and his band (featuring his son Shuggie, Big Joe Turner, Eddie “Cleanhead” Vinson, Esther Phillips, and Marie Adams and the Three Tons of Joy), Albert King, Doc Watson, and Sonny Terry and Brownie McGee. Note, while I was very fortunate to experience some of my favorite artists at iconic venues in LA (e.g., The Troubadour, Hollywood Bowl, LA Forum, Hollywood Palladium, Santa Monica Civic), the Ash Grove was exceptional for the quality and range of artists and musical genres. (see Photo Album, photo # 19). I never thought about it this way, but it has been suggested that the Ash Grove was what CBGBs “OMFUG” would be to the NYC Punk scene, because it covered a wide range of music and expanded our awareness of blues, R&B, etc., all played by the original artists. Dave Alvin’s 2004 album Ashgrove captures the mood well. 

LA had its quirks (see photo #16), but being a teenager transcends place.  I prepared for more than one High School morning by blasting Politician from the album Goodbye Cream through headphones on my parents' Harman Kardon stereo.  My friends and I would walk on Melrose towards Fairfax High School in the morning would sometimes “sing” Hideaway or I’m So Glad together, one taking the drum part, the other the bass, guitar, etc. I don’t want to run down a list of shows I saw, because it’s tedious and self-indulgent, so I’ll summarize and try to keep it relatable. There was Joni Mitchell at the Troubadour, 1969/70, playing her brand new Clouds LP or maybe parts of Ladies of the Canyon too. She was this beautiful, ethereal, talented 26 year old woman and I was this….well…I was 16, so let’s just leave it at that. I recall seeing Ike and Tina Turner somewhere in San Bernardino, a great show and it felt like we were the only white people there. Somebody’s Mom drove us down from nearby Lake Gregory/Arrowhead where we were staying at somebody’s vacation home. All I remember were the micro-mini skirts, how hard the band worked, and the lingering stench in the air from a rodeo or livestock show days earlier. I caught Hendrix a couple of times at the Los Angeles Forum - almost exactly one year apart in April of 1969 and 1970 - although he sure looked tiny from the upper deck. For the 1969 show, he had dozens of fuzz boxes lining the tops of his Marshall stacks, and he covered Sunshine of Your Love and other Cream songs in tribute to their breakup a few days earlier. Chicago and Cat Mother opened (photo #10). There were also great Johnny Winter shows - especially “Johnny Winter And” at the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium. I may have seen God during his and Rick Derringer’s performance of the slow blues standard It’s My Own Fault. My focus on pure blues, however, caused me to miss out on seeing the Doors or the Byrds or other non-blues bands, until I was pissed off with myself for not taking a friend up on an offer to see the Rolling Stones with Mick Taylor (another Mayall hire I really liked) in 1972. That led to catch up time and Hollywood Bowl concerts with people like Rod Stewart and the Faces or Alice Cooper (photo # 20). I was an ancient 18/19 years old by then. It wasn’t until I formed Acrylix, during the Punk/New Wave scare of the early 1980s, and was being chastised for playing blues solos or any solos for that matter, that I started to wean myself. It cracked me up when the guys (Glenn, Norman, Josh) in 7 Door Sedan (the last band I was in), were blown away when I could rip off that same blues intro riff I learned from Johnny Winter all those years ago. To paraphrase the late guitarist Mike Bloomfield, when asked how he could still play the blues even after he had become successful, I got a good memory. 

The Beatles and the Texas electric blues of Freddie King and Johnny Winter were the first to really get my juices flowing, but at the end of the day it was all about volume and rock and roll. For the most part, I spent my teenage years playing along with that same Harman Kardon stereo in the living room: Allman Brothers, Freddie King, Albert King, John Mayall (really his guitarists Mick Taylor, Harvey Mandel, Peter Green, and Eric Clapton), Johnny Winter, and the Grateful Dead. The Dead dropped off after a while - the fans and their cult got to me - but I always admired Jerry Garcia’s guitar lyricism and ability to play through the chord changes. I tired of the Allman Brothers as well, as they gradually morphed into one, and then no, brothers and then drifted into that southern, Lynyrd Skynyrd redneck thing. The rest, the pure rock blues, stayed with me. The more guitar I learn – through study or age or experience – the more amazed I am at how far, at the beginning, I got by on fumes alone. As I mentioned before, there are three main licks that got me going: the first few bars of Be Careful with a Fool by Johnny Winter, Freddie King’s Hideaway, and Eric Clapton’s version of Robert Johnson’s Ramblin’ on My Mind. All three were simple enough for me to follow (not counting the occasional blur of 32nd notes), until that blues minor pentatonic was etched into my brain. Some variation of that scale was really all I played until I began to do the new wave thing in 1980, or started to take actual guitar lessons. 

While my first serious band wouldn’t be until Acrylix in Washington, DC, I did play non-serious music with friends in high school (1968-71). There was one band we call The Solos, featuring drums (Sid Condo and Jon Tobin), bass (Ron Ganzfried), guitar (David Goldsmith), sax (me), and tambourine (John Davis), with Ron’s dog Shadow contributing a pee stain on the cloth speaker cover. As the name attests to, we literally each played a solo piece (I played Chattanooga Choo Choo on sax), although we did manage to come together over Louie Louie (Kingsmen), House of the Rising Sun (Animals), Steppin’ Stone (Monkees), and For Your Love (Yardbirds). Ron was also in a band that appeared in a battle of the bands segment of the TV show "Happening ’69".  I went to the taping of the show, which was hosted by Paul Revere and Mark Lindsay (Paul Revere and the Raiders), and one judge was Peter Tork.  Ron wore a beaded necklace with a large medallion and striped multicolored bell bottoms from Fred Segal of Hollywood. David is now an ace old-time/bluegrass/Irish fiddle player. In summer of 1975, Ron and I also played with friends Bill Gerstel and Richard Freeman in a band called Death Warmed Over (now there’s a name, although I am still waiting to be in a band with the name Killers of Death). It was a good time jam band with two drummers (Bill and Richard); definitely a non-serious band. We played covers by bands like the Rolling Stones or Led Zeppelin. We did Wild Horses by the Stones and Bill, our lead singer, would follow the lyrics “let’s do some living after we die” with his own exhortation of “c’mon people, die with me.” Bill’s gone now, but I sure as hell miss his sense of humor. 

I was a romantic and a blues purist and gradually gained a punk sensibility. The late 70s/early 80s were defined by guitar tones and ambience over classical virtuosity. Key guitarists from this era included Adrian Belew (Talking Heads/King Crimson), The Edge (U2), John Ashton (Psychedelic Furs), and Paul Reynolds (Flock of Seagulls). All were reacting against extended, overindulgent soloing. They and others of the period shortened, eliminated or made more cacophonous (is “cacophonized” a real word?) the guitar solo. The times called for moving away from the confines of that structure. I was inspired to change and to play in style of “stop making sense, making sense” as David Byrne would say. I began to get bored with jamming and Arena rock and to look instead for something that was more urgent and less laid back, as I will describe later with the experience of seeing the Sex Pistols, in 1978. I did not take my very first real guitar lesson until 1981 or 1982 from a real pro, Bill Biesecker, a former Navy band musician who played in the pit orchestras in DC. Oh how he did laugh when I told him that I really didn’t want to sweat music theory because I was more into structureless, self-taught stuff. I quickly learned how full of shit I was, as I began to learn the fret board and see what I had been absorbing simply by osmosis from years of playing along with records. I had to learn the fret board in order to deconstruct it. Bill was cool, like the time he came straight from his gig in the pit orchestra at the National Theatre, still in formal black suit and tie, to catch a show of mine at the small underground club DC Space, at 7th and E, NW, in downtown Washington, DC. 

Over the past 15 years in particular, I have become acutely aware of the difference between economical rock guitar riffs and fills, with unique electronic effects - a la Iggy Pop’s Ron Asheton or James Williamson, Mick Ronson, or George Harrison - versus the (primarily white) blues rock guitar that I was suckled on. The technical virtuoso thing now bores me. I’m visualizing boys (me included) in the front row drooling over jazz fusion god Alan Holdsworth. Although Cream still sounds great to me after all these years, I am ashamed to admit that it was only after seeing their reunion concert in 2005 (photo #21) that I realized that Eric Clapton would be, and is, nowhere without Jack Bruce and Ginger Baker kicking his little You Look Wonderful Tonight ass. I should have picked up on the generational shift when was doing a crossword puzzle where the answer was Clapton and the question was singer-songwriter Eric ____. I mean, thank you Eric Clapton for great covers of Freddie King songs, brilliant blues rock, and sizzling jams, but…..sorry. And please don’t send me “amazing” You Tube videos of an 8-year-old playing note for note copies of some Jimmy Page guitar solo; it’s like watching a wind-up toy. The current batch of perfect singers leaves me cold and no matter how soulful feels totally void of soul: I call it the American Idolization of music. Paint By Numbers. Hey, Get Off My Lawn!! 

The common ground between my compartmentalized worlds of music and academics is just how much I love learning new things. A big thing I learned through “slumming” as a rock musician was how to play music with other people. The social interaction, power dynamics, listening, and communication meant that I literally learned to “play well with others.” You can be a legend in your own mind, in your own room, but there’s nothing like facing bandmates, hashing out a tune, and having them say - politely or not - um, Ken, don’t play guitar over the vocals (or synthesizer or other guitar), because I can’t fucking hear myself. Or please cut down on the blues, dude! To work together well in a rock band, like in an orchestra, everyone has to claim or occupy their own niche or frequency (I literally mean cycles per second, Hertz (Hz)). Otherwise, it’s a muddy (British pronunciation: bloody) mess. It is nothing short of thrilling to discover something new during practice. You come in with the raw material, a song with a basic structure that, if you don’t say so yourself, is pretty darn good, but then you start playing with band mates and there’s a moment where you create something bigger than the original tune, when the synthesizer player adds a fill or someone suggests an arrangement idea and suddenly you are in the pocket. You are sailing. As in this is cool and we fucking did it and it has never been done before. So, I was a heat-seeking missile for creativity. I was starved for that because my birth family had followed a more proscribed path and I had landed smack dab in the middle of the rule-smashing punk culture. I tried to take criticism as well as I could - sometimes well, sometimes less than well - because I so wanted to be part of something bigger than myself. Not in a religious or Army service kind of “bigger” either. Man, how I wish a pilot on a commercial airline flight would come over the loudspeaker and, instead of singling out military personnel, say Today on the flight we have Mr. Moss, who creates fucking awesome original musical ideas; thank you for your service and God Bess America! Then, all the passengers clap.  


(Many many thanks to to my good friends Ron Ganzfried and David Goldsmith for filling in the gaps in my memory for this chapter.)

7 thoughts on “Chapter V. How I became a guitar player, part 2.

  1. Right on, Ken! I love reading this stuff. Great education for the novices like me, who just like what we hear!

    I’ll push back on you a bit…Despite the “redneck thing,” Lynyrd Skynyrd was at the top of their game when they lost Van Zant and Steve Gaines (who’d just joined the band) right after Street Survivors. dropped. For me, that’s still one of the best rock albums of all time–Southern, blues, Americana, honky-tonk–whatever you want to call it, they had all those influences. Some of the best lead jams in history on that album, songs like “That Smell” and “What’s Your Name.” Yes, they were misogynistic, and of course implicitly racist, so you have to block some of that out to appreciate the musicianship…

    I’m a little more optimistic about current music than you are. Yes, many of just chirp that the best rock blues happened in the 60s and 70s, and it’s all been downhill since then. Definitely a lot of truth to that. But listen to new acts like Black Pumas, or Backseat Lovers, and you’ll hear some very inventive guitar-driven rock still being created

    1. Thanks for the comment “little cuz.” I probably didn’t need to throw in that gratuitous slight on the band. They had their moments, and at the end of the day we’re just a couple of old white men arguing 😉 I recall enjoying their set in 1973 at the LA Forum opening for The Who’s Quadrophenia tour, and confess to liking the guitars in Sweet Home Alabama, and it’s a tragedy what happened in that plane crash. I note this quote from lone survivor Gary Rossington, back in 2012: “Through the years, people like the KKK and skinheads kinda kidnapped the Dixie or Southern flag from its tradition and the heritage of the soldiers, that’s what it was about,” Rossington said. “We didn’t want that to go to our fans or show the image like we agreed with any of the race stuff or any of the bad things.”

      Re: “Yes, they were misogynistic, and of course implicitly racist, so you have to block some of that out to appreciate the musicianship…” – I call that the Rod Stewart effect. He has a beautiful voice but comes across as a sexist asshole. 😉

  2. I’m gonna be brief: I thank you for vindicating my always-view of Clapton: clinical.

    And here’s our big problem; we never finished the lyric

    “Hey, Mrs. Tambourine Man
    Where’s your husband now.?”

    I guess we had no idea of where he might be.

    1. Hopefully time heals and Mrs. Tambourine Man, summarily dismissed no doubt in favor of some other, comely young percussion player, did not end up an embittered soul. Indeed, the Mr. got all the attention. Regarding this particular lyric, I posit that we should not mess with perfection. It is undeniably a great (albeit single stanza’s worth) body of work. It stands alone. If anything, owing to Mr.’s success with the ladies, perhaps one could add “he’s not sleepy and there is no place he’s going to, and wherever he ends up it most certainly will not be with the ex-Mrs.” But that would mess with the carefully crafted meter. Your friend, Ken

      1. You’re right, the original insight was enough! Why stress?

        Also, I found the Virginia tv broadcasts of the Acrylix pretty cool. Everybody doing their jobs well. You look young enough to be Connor.

  3. We also saw Taj Mahal at the Ash Grove. And, I had the same feeling for Linda Ronstadt at the Troubadour that you did for Joni Mitchell. Newby Linda was on a double bill with newly famous Kris Kristofferson in 1969. I am part of your staid birth family, and had no idea what you were up to until Acrylix. Probably better not knowing… we might have questioned you. Glad we didn’t. I think one area you could touch on is how hard you tried to raise money to self publish your music and get air time. It was and still is reallllly hard.

    1. Thanks, big bro! Forgot about Taj Mahal. Cool you saw Linda R so young. Good point about self-publishing (aka hustling for dollars) and promo push – it’s a bitch. I haven’t even gotten to Acrylix, which USED to be the point of this whole thing, but I will try to come up with something on that. I’m still guilty you gave me some money instead of investing in Pete’s coffee and becoming a godzillionaire! 😉

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